When it comes to the recycling supply chain and new packaging regulations coming down the line, what poses as simple, time-tested requests and solutions actually seem to be nebulous at best. Like any commodity, the recycling supply chain is subject to supply and demand—more so demand—as well as the profitability of both buying and selling materials. It is, as we all know, a business like any other, altruistic as it may seem.
To help me sort through the nuts and bolts of the upcoming packaging regulations and the recycling supply chain story is Corinne Van Dyke, Senior Sustainability Program Manager for Measure to Improve. When I came to her this past December, she was both patient and incredibly enlightening, inspiring me to share a conversation I hope will do the same for you as it did for me.
Corinne Van Dyke, Senior Sustainability Program Manager, Measure to Improve: In 2022, California passed SB54 which sets goals to reduce single-use plastic and foodservice ware by 25 percent, ensure 100 percent is recyclable or compostable, and ensure 65 percent is recycled—all by 2032.
California also released a list of covered materials and announced that the Circular Action Alliance will lead the Producer Responsible Organization (PRO) to ensure goals are met. There are no immediate deadlines for producers, but 2032 is not far away. The industry needs to start considering how they can confirm that their packaging is considered recyclable or compostable by the state of California by the 2032 deadline.
CVD: Great question. We see more and more packaging designed to work within our recycling system, meaning once the packaging waste arrives at a material recovery facility (MRF), it can be properly sorted and sold as recycled content to produce new material. But MRFs are businesses too, so they tend to only collect profitable materials. If it’s not profitable for them to collect film plastics, then they likely won’t collect it.
This is where a healthy recycling market can help drive our circular economy. SB54 aims to address this by setting a target to ensure 65 percent of plastic packaging and foodservice ware gets recycled. Not just designed to be recyclable but is actually recycled. This challenge goes beyond the produce industry, and we’re eager to see how the funds collected by SB54 can be used to increase recycling rates across the entire recycling supply chain.
Another challenge is what is considered recyclable changes by location and waste hauler. For example, a hauler in California’s Central Valley may have a profitable recycling outlet for a given material, while one in the Salinas Valley may not have access to those same outlets, and thus will not accept the material in the recycling stream. Furthermore, one hauler might have more sophisticated sorting equipment, allowing additional material types to be sorted and recovered. This isn’t uniquely a California issue; items accepted in single-stream recycling change by jurisdiction across the U.S., which can be challenging for producers and consumers alike.
CVD: The produce industry is primed to communicate directly with consumers. Brand owners can consider adding How2Recycle® labels to their packaging to educate consumers on how to properly dispose of packaging. That way, materials that belong in recycling make it there, and the materials that belong in the landfill aren’t contaminating the recycling stream. Every instance of contamination has a negative impact on MRFs, and a fully circular economy heavily relies on consumers recycling correctly.
"A healthy recycling market can help drive our circular economy. SB54 aims to address this by setting a target to ensure 65 percent of plastic packaging and foodservice ware gets recycled. Not just designed to be recyclable but is actually recycled. This challenge goes beyond the produce industry, and we’re eager to see how the funds collected by SB54 can be used to increase recycling rates across the entire recycling supply chain."
Corinne Van Dyke, Senior Sustainability Program Manager, Measure to Improve
The industry can also focus on incorporating more post-consumer recycled (PCR) content into packaging. PCR helps reduce the use of virgin materials and supports the material recovery market. Clamshells and rigid plastic packaging tend to be ahead of the curve and have been incorporating PCR for years. Film plastics have been more of a challenge; however, we’re seeing more and more use of food-safe PCR in film plastic packaging, and we look forward to seeing adoption increase.
For those looking to ensure their packaging is recyclable, we recommend looking to the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) Design Guides. The guides can help determine if your packaging fits into one of their four recyclability categories. Depending on what category your packaging falls into, you can explore alternatives that align with your goals.
21 percent of residential recyclables are being recycled—every material type is being under-recycled.
76 percent of residential recyclables are lost at the household level, underscoring the importance of access and engagement.
Recycling facilities should be able to process 95 percent of the recyclable material they receive into saleable commodities. Today, we estimate that 87 percent of material [that recycling facilities receive] is sorted and sent to market.
While the industry commences on its journey toward the adoption of more recyclable and recycled material, it is good to know that companies like Measure to Improve are keeping us all informed and updated as the reality unfolds.